Breon O'Casey (in his own words)
Here is my story. I was born in London in 1928. My parents were Sean O'Casey, the Irish playwright, and Eileen O'Casey, an actress. My mother's people came from Mayo; my father's from Dublin.
In 1937 the family moved from London to Totnes in Devon, partly because Dartington Hall, which was nearby, provided a sensible school for their children. The school was a success and I benefited greatly from my time there. Dartington was founded by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who had a vision of a Utopian community which combined the working of the land with the life of the spirit through the arts. The emphasis the school placed on physical activities and skills, considering them equally important to academic skills, was crucial to me. It was at Dartington School that I learnt to saw and hammer, to think with my hands as well as my head.
Art lessons at Dartington:
Because of the way teaching at Dartington was structured, and although there were periods set aside for art, the art room was available at any time. People did sit the art exam, learning the history of art, and drawing a sprig of ivy. But I never did, I took art too seriously to ever sit an exam.
Metalwork lessons at Dartington:
I was taught metalwork at Dartington by Naum Slutsky. Before the war Naum had been head of metalwork at the Bauhaus, but owing to Hitler, he had ended up teaching us kids. Naum was a short, dark haired man with massive shoulders, impeccably turned out and rode around the estate on a huge jet black stallion. In one of his classes, we drilled holes in a small sheet of german silver and were told to saw a design at random. This was to teach us to use the piercing saw. And this was my first piece of jewellery.
Entry to his special metal class was a 'square inch of mild steel': he cut the end off a square bar of steel which was just proud of an inch. Your task was to file it down until each side was exactly an inch square and each angle was exactly a right angle. This was, of course, impossible; but if you nevertheless stuck at it for a number of sessions (3, I think) he let you in.
I was lucky in that, after my National Service, few people wanted to go to Art School. Fewer still wanted to go to the Anglo-French Art Centre, a small hard-up school in St John's Wood, with close links to the French school of painting, which greeted me and my grant with open arms. Today, with the qualifications I had then (nil), I would never have been able to get near an Art School. At Art School we learned from each other, and from endlessly parading around the London art galleries, both private and municipal. After leaving, the next ten years were spent in the wilderness: perhaps a necessary process in the development of an artist, but a deeply depressing
time, full of doubt and lethargy: dark years.
One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived in St Ives, Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me.
Ah St Ives! In those days, still a working fishing port with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it.
One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn't matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained of alcove at one end - illegally - and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it.
I got to know the sculptor Denis Mitchell and he hired me as a part-time assistant, I worked for him for about two years. In those days, his studio was a cluttered ship-like loft above a yard, just off Fore Street, and consequently a convenient port of call for artists out for air. It was here that I met for the first time artists that had only been names to me before, and to find out to my surprise that they all had feet of clay (some of them had heads of clay too). It was here that all the gossip gathered, all the comings and goings of the Penwith Society, all the news from London.
The studio was very untidy. We spent a great deal of time searching for mislaid tools. My contribution too tidiness was to put up a notice saying 'Don't put it down, put it back', which did no good at all. And yet the work got done. I worked mainly on the bronzes, filing and plugging. Denis's method of work, getting his plaster patterns sand cast before working on them, is as close to carving bronze as you can get. Bringing out of this roughly cast lump of metal an elegant shape, was heartbreakingly tedious work. He had very few power tools, and was reluctant to use even those, so it was down through the files, then down through the emery papers, ending up rubbing the bronze with bits of torn off cigarette packets soaked in Brasso.
And so I learned and so he taught through practice, the passion of getting it just right, step by patient step, at whatever the cost. I learned to accept the tedium of work; the practical way to Heaven, using hammers and saws, ropes and pulleys, chisels and files, among the dust, filings and shavings of the cold, dark, damp workshops, that now I love so much.
WORKING FOR BARBARA
I first went to work for Barbara Hepworth on a temporary basis in the late 1950s.
I was to help out for a week, and stayed three years. This was nothing unusual. Barbara's method of hiring people was very sound and one that I have copied: she would ask the person to help out for a week, and, if they were no good, at the end of the week she would thank them and see them off; but if she liked them, they would stay on perhaps for a month, and that month would stretch to as many years as was mutually agreeable. It was my first intimate acquaintance with a famous artist. She paid me £2 a day and I worked for her three days a week. I never have (and never will) worked full-time for anyone - I have always, even when we were hard up, kept some time for my own work.
We started work at 8 o'clock, and if you were late, nothing was said, but she would keep pointedly glancing at her wrist watch - a black wrist watch on a black leather band - whereas at five to five there was invariably a sculpture to move one seldom left on the stroke of five this was a continual grouse.
Barbara's studio was in the middle of the town, in what looked from the outside, to be a fortress. Her workshops and garden were enclosed by a very high granite wall, leaning in places, very dangerously, over the narrow street. And it was a ritual, after an evening at the pub on the way home, to pee against this wall to further undermine the foundations.
Working for these two sculptors was my apprenticeship. No nonsense about expressing yourself - you did what you were told. While on duty you thought Mitchell or Hepworth thoughts. Although I respected Barbara's work, I didn't have sympathy with it as I did with Denis's, but even so, those years working for Denis and then Barbara were a great education. How much you learned without really realising it: how to combine the practical world of the market place with the ideal world of the artist.